One of the most popular films during the Christmas season is “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The Frank Capra classic has been a perennial part of holiday programming ever since TV stations figured out that it had become public domain back in 1974, a situation which has since been remedied. It doesn’t show as often now because of that, but it’s ubiquitous nevertheless.
If you don’t know it or have somehow been able to miss ever seeing it at this time of year, it’s the story of a man who learns how important he really is. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is in banking and his horrible boss (Lionel Barrymore) holds him responsible for some missing funds. This sends George into a depression and he contemplates suicide. He is met by a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows him how things would have turned out if he had never lived. It’s an uplifting message; we are not insignificant, we make ripples with our lives and those ripples have effects we cannot predict. The missing money is collected by George’s family and friends, delivered to the mean old banker and everything set aright.
Wholesome, uplifting and heartwarming, right? Well, not to everyone. “It’s A Wonderful Life” was released in 1946, as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was just sharpening its knives. The FBI worked with HUAC to ferret out the “commies” in Hollywood and the resulting witch hunt destroyed careers in the film capital.
The film fell under suspicion at first because of the screenwriters. Frances Goodrich and her husband Albert Hackett are credited with the screenplay though several other writers helped. But it was that pair that the FBI set their sights upon. Their “informant” gave them the following information on “It’s A Wonderful Life”:
According to Informants [REDACTED] in this picture the screen credits again fail to reflect the Communist support given to the screen writer. According to [REDACTED] the writers Frances Goodrick [sic] and Albert Hackett were very close to known Communists… (they) were observed eating luncheon daily with such Communists as Lester Cole, screen writer, and Earl Robinson, screen writer.
Oh, noes! They had lunch with colleagues! But that wasn’t the worst part. The memo — 13,533 pages of speculation and aspersions — expressed displeasure at the film’s villain:
… the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.
Those wily commies. Imagine, a banker being a greedy meanie. But wait, there’s more! Guess who was in the group that produced the “tools” the FBI used to analyze films? *drumroll* Ayn Rand! She had her fingers in quite a lot of pies and Hollywood was one of the most lucrative for her. Among the nonsense Rand’s band of boneheads fed the FBI:
The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is…to corrupt non-political movies — by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories… a constant stream of hints, lines, touches and suggestions battering the public from the screen will act like drops of water that split a rock if continued long enough. The rock that they are trying to split is Americanism.
That’s some pretty corrosive water. But they had it backwards: the corrosion is fear fed by bigotry and chauvinism. It’s the FBI and Congress investigating art. It is the paranoia of the ones who are afraid of ideas. The idea that each of us has value, each of us matters and we all are connected scares the bejeezus out of the authoritarians and oligarchy. If we believe that, we might come together and upset the status quo. Can’t have that.
Every year we get that message in the form of a film. A box office flop when it was released, given new life in a new medium. A film that tells us we are important. Go past the religious overtones and get to the heart of it: we are connected. What we do will affect others in ways we can’t imagine. We are all George Bailey.
Here’s the trailer for the film’s 2012 re-release. Merry Christmas![youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cR7p-IB6INM&w=640&h=360]
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